Opinion: What Makes A Great Trailer?

I’ve talked about trailers in the past, but with our new Trailer Park feature it seems like a topic that’s worth revisiting. If I’m honest though that wasn’t the article that initially sparked me off thinking about great trailers, it was the Halo 4 launch trailer, a live action affair.

Personally I always enjoy the Halo trailers, and not simply because I’m a big fan of the series. No, it’s simply the quality of the trailers they manage to produce. Whilst I can certainly see why some prefer gameplay focussed trailers, there’s a quality about trailers like those for the Halo series that really appeal to me.

The thing with gameplay trailers is that whilst they can be informative about what a game actually looks like, they often don’t tell you much more than that. The quick cut nature of certain trailers, particularly with games like Battlefield and Call of Duty, makes them pretty close to useless in my opinion. They give you maybe a dozen snippets of gameplay, but none of them is more than a few seconds long.

That, to me, doesn’t seem like a useful way to put together a trailer. Yes, you’re showing actual footage from the game, but you’re not really giving a sense of what the game’s like. All you likely know is that you shoot people with guns; hardly the deepest information.

[videoyoutube]That’s not to say that there aren’t useful gameplay trailers, this week’s SimCity trailer is an example of a fantastic gameplay based trailer. It’s quite clearly not intended as a TV spot, something that always makes things tougher, but it’s still a quite wonderful trailer that’s going to excite the game’s fanbase.

Even when a gameplay focussed trailer gives you some insight into how a game plays, that’s usually all you’re getting; it completely ignores the fact that games have stories and characters. Yes, it is possible to get it across in this type of trailer, but it’s certainly more difficult.

This is where I loop back around to the pedigree of Halo’s live action trailers. They are, for my money, the best trailers for any game out there, and they rarely use any in-game footage at all. The production values excel but, more importantly, they manage to tell a story without spoiling the game for anyone. Look at the Halo 3 diorama and museum based adverts, they were simply wonderful, gave you a look at Halo’s world and brought a tear to my eye more than once.

What a great trailer does is give you insight into the game’s universe, into the reality that it weaves. No you can’t do this for every game, it would be ridiculous for the next Gran Turismo, but I love something that hooks me in and intrigues me. Gameplay is certainly capable of doing that, a new or interesting mechanic can be a great draw, but I don’t feel that a gameplay trailer does.


Although I know it’s not quite a trailer, take the famous Michael video that Sony put out. They could have made a great trailer by slicing together gameplay footage from the games it draws from, and it likely would have been a good showcase and then forgotten in a few weeks.

Instead they gave you something that drew you in, that made you initially curious and then really hooked you with a fun reveal. They didn’t just make you notice PS3 games, they made you remember the brand and forced it to stick in your head.

The best trailers and adverts are the ones that make you do that, that give you something new or interesting, something you can genuinely talk about and that stay with you. Gameplay is great, but it’s easy to forget and hard to attach emotion to. It may inform you, but it rarely sticks with you.

I can’t say the same for great pieces of video like that Michael trailer, Halo 3’s adverts or the Gears of War 2 Last Day trailer. They’ve stayed with me, sometimes years after they came out. It sounds pretentious, but they feel like more than just an advert for something. They show you how good these things can be, and, in some cases, I love them more than what they’re advertising.

Sure a trailer’s primary focus is to sell you something, be it a game, movie or book, but a great one is one that sticks with you, independent of the final product.



  1. I absolutely loved the trailers that were released for SWTOR. Obviously it wasn’t gameplay but their epicness blew me away and got me super excited for it.


    They were released in the opposite order to that. Another thing that was great about them was that it doesn’t spoil the game itself as everything shown in these trailers takes place before the events of the game.

    I can’t think of many gameplay trailers that I really enjoyed. Off the top of my head I can only remember the ME3 trailer that was shown just before release. It was awesome.

  2. errrm!
    digital boobies!

  3. I have no problem with cinematic or live action trailers that do the game justice. Mass Effect 3’s cinematic trailers captured the games intense action and sombre tone perfectly and I felt that the early Resistance 3 live action trailers got the atmosphere of that world just right.
    Those were rare exceptions though. Most cinematic trailers are basically smoother, grander versions of gameplay and that too me feels like the trailer is over selling the game. Trying to make it look better than it actually is. There’s been a number of times thats lead to me feeling disappointed when I play the actually game.
    I would prefer more gameplay trailers but to get a real feel of a game you have to spend time with it and a short 3 min vid just isn’t enough unless its showing something genuinely new and inventive like Media Molecules trailers for their Vita game.

  4. What makes a great trailer???

    Dubstep…..lots and lots of dubstep of course.

    • In 99% of cases, dubstep ruins trailers for me….

    • dubstep and slow mo… the ultimate cliché

  5. Mass Effect 3, Dawn of War 2, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Warhammer: Mark of Chaos, and SW:TOR all had great trailers. Don’t think I could pick a favourite out of all of them…

  6. Me too yogdog, I can’t stand it.

    • Haha couldn’t tell if you were being sarcastic or not! :D

  7. I haven’t seen the new Halo trailer yet but i thought the Halo 3 one with the flashback with two boys and the rendered battle was superbly emotive and really exciting to watch. It appealed to the bit off that likes escapism and drama, rather than the bit that likes driving fast and power sliding. I’m only made up of four bits actually, the other two like boobs and curry, I’m a simple type :) Good article by the way!

  8. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2odtsuvRVzk&feature=related
    Loved all the Fear 3 trailers but that has to be one of the best videogame adds i’ve seen,the Paxton Fettel one mixes game and vid awesomely to.

    Speaking purely trailers i think Cods mw3 live action add last year were awful.The previous years black ops gameplay add kicked ass http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P9Ny1DGIsMc mostly down to the stones


  9. Good article, Kris, although I think it’s more about what the trailer sets out to do that’s the most important thing. Some trailers are to tease… some to inform… some to wow us with stunning visuals. The best will do two or three of those things. The worst will leave us cold and have us never reading another article again (about the game).

    The Dead Island trailer set the video games world alight. Hell, it was reported by “old fashioned” mediums too! Not a hint of gameplay but the emotional investment was truly monumental.

    However, we can also look for top-drawer gameplay and realise a fifteen minute video (admittedly not a trailer) can work very well. The Last of Us is superb at that. I cannot be arsed to watch any fifteen minute play-through but The Last of Us set me straight. When it comes down to it, it’s all about the content. If you have the right stuff, people will be hooked. If not, great editing goes a long way. If you have the budget and the right folks on board, a live action trailer (Metro 2033) can do wonderful things.

    1. grab my attention
    2. get me interested
    3. tell me what it’s about
    4. seal the deal with reassurance and that it’s a quality item
    5. try to contain a smug smile as the profits roll in

  10. It may be because i’m already interested in the game but Bioshock Infinite’s new trailer I found very interesting (I think it was called Beast Of America Trailer). I think it may be the art design makes Bioshock games really interesting to run around so seeing a glimpse of them is pretty awesome.

Comments are now closed for this post.